The Dalbys were Methodists, so that religion provided the basic structure of the memorial for Buzz, but there had been a few modern additions tacked on. It was being held in the same ring where Will had ironically won his bet with Preston, and I assumed that was because it was air-conditioned, or at least it was today. I was glad for that, because although it was hot, although not too humid, we were all dressed in suits. The extra layers of clothing would have been unbearable if we’d been in a stuffy venue with no climate control. It was a testament to Buzz’s popularity in this area, or to the Dalby’s power, that there had to be at least 500 people in attendance. Perhaps an even bigger sign of that was the presence of the current governor of Texas, Rick Perry, as well as the former governor, Ann Richards. Since he was a Republican and she was a Democrat, their political power evidently extended to both parties.
There were rows set up in two columns aligned as if they were chevrons, and we had been allotted places of honor in the front row on the right side, along with Dally and Nola’s family. Buck, Laddie Mae, Linda and her family sat in the front row on the left side. I wondered if Buck had set things up this way so he could keep his eye on everyone. In the funerals that we’d done after 9-11, we’d had slide shows and videos, but that wasn’t the norm, so I was a little surprised that they did that here. I largely ignored the minister who spoke, along with the hymns that were sung, but when they showed pictures of Buzz, my attention focused on the ceremony. They’d played “When I’m Gone” by Three Doors Down during the prelude to the service, and now, with the show memorializing Buzz’s life, they played Lee Ann Womack’s “I Hope You Dance.” I thought the song was so appropriate, since Buzz, with his happy and optimistic outlook on things, wouldn’t have wanted people to spend a bunch of time grieving for him. We sat there stoically, looking at pictures of Buzz when he was young, and I felt so bad that we had only known him for just a little bit of time. Those segments with Womack’s song were the most poignant, so I took the opportunity to observe the impact on the other people, as much to distract myself as to see their reactions. Buck Dalby sat there like a rock, as if he was impervious to the death of his only son. His wife cried softly, dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief, while the rest of the family did much the same as she did. Dally was less able to be so unemotional, and it was nice to see Nola put her arm around him in a caring gesture. I could sense that Will was chomping at the bit to go over and try to comfort him.
Of course, with any funeral, it was impossible for me to block out the nightmare that was 9-11. I saw tears streaming down Will’s cheeks as he tried to maintain a more stoic façade and failed, so I put my hand on his shoulder and gripped it. He put his hand on my arm and gripped it back, and with that one gesture, he moved me out of what could have been a grief spiral into hell, by reminding me of the wonderful people I still had in my life, the living who had survived. It had been a long, drawn out service, what with the need to cram modern displays and music into the program, to have people speak about Buzz and laud his achievements, and to have an entire religious ceremony crammed into the memorial as well. I was sure I wasn’t the only one who was relieved when it was over.
“That was really nice,” Will said, even as he wiped the tears out of his eyes.
“It was,” I agreed.
“I’ll catch up with you,” he said, and migrated down the aisle to catch up to Dally. He followed Dally down the aisle to the back of the room in a recessional that reminded me of a wedding ceremony, and to further the comparison, they formed what almost appeared to be a receiving line.
Stef and I stayed back, avoiding the string of well-wishers, and spent our time watching them instead. The people slowly filed out, with most of them stopping to say something to Buck or members of his family. Dally stood a bit apart from the rest of the Dalbys as if he were purposely putting distance between them, and he was flanked by JP and Will. JP was being the social beast that he could be, while Will seemed to be keeping a wary eye on Dally. “He seems to have made watching out for Dally his key focus,” Stef noted in a friendly way, referring to Will. Ever since Will had won his bet with Preston, Stef had treated him much more nicely.
“He does,” I agreed. “He knows how tough this is, so he’s trying to help Dally out as best he can.”
We watched as a very attractive Latina woman walked up to Dally, and saw him all but recoil at her presence. “I am going to go out on a limb and guess that is Maria,” Stef said.
“We don’t need your sage abilities to figure that out,” I replied. Dally said a few words to her, and even from our vantage point we could see him struggling to be civil, then she moved on and chatted with JP, who gestured in our direction. “It looks like we’ll get to meet her too.”
“So it seems,” Stef said, and we both braced ourselves for this encounter as she walked toward us. She was very attractive, about medium height, with long legs and big boobs. Buzz was an attractive man, so it made sense that he’d have a hot wife.
“I am Maria Dalby,” she said, holding out her hand.
“Brad Schluter,” I said, shaking her hand. I came in contact with her smooth, sensuous skin and decided that if I were a straight man, she’d be almost irresistible. “This is Stefan Schluter.”
“It is a pleasure to meet you,” she said, flirting with him. It was such a wasted effort it was hysterical.
“It is nice to meet you as well,” Stef said coolly.
“Buzz told me how excited he was to actually work with you,” she said, then feigned sadness. “It is a shame he did not get to spend more time doing that.” I guess with her heritage and family links, I’d expected her to have at least a slight Mexican accent, but hers was all Texan.
“The time I had with him was exceptionally valuable, nonetheless,” Stef said.
“I was hoping that we could have a conversation at some point about the issues I’m dealing with,” she said. She must have sensed how we tensed up at that, even though we both tried not to. “I know this isn’t the time or place to do that.”
“It is not, and I am not sure that a conversation on our part is even necessary,” Stef said. “I would suspect that the attorneys would work on it with minimal involvement from us.”
“Maybe,” she said, leaving that there as a challenge.
“You are welcome to call me next week,” Stef relented. He gave her one of his cards with his phone number on it.
“Then I will do that,” she said. “It was nice to meet you both, probably the only nice thing about this day.” She shook our hands, then walked off, neglecting to so much as glance over at the Dalbys.
“What was that all about?” I asked.
“You will remember that I explained to Will that my safety was not currently at risk,” he explained. “I suggested that whoever is involved in this would be most likely to negotiate with me first.”
“I remember,” I said.
“That was the first step in that process,” he said, then changed the subject. “I must meet with some of the Dalbys after this, then I would like to leave relatively early in the morning tomorrow.”
“I can do that,” I said. I didn’t know if that worked with Will’s plans, but I was guessing he’d be ready to leave this pressure cooker of an environment.
They’d done a nice job with the memorial service, and when the last of the guests were gone, Buck and Laddie led us out to the patio by the pool, where the staff had set up a buffet. We chatted about how nice the service was, heard them gossip about the people who had been there, and relaxed to the degree that such a thing was possible. The Dalbys had cried real tears during the memorial, but once it was over, all of them except Dally seemed to paste on their façades and, if there was grief there, it wasn’t visible to the rest of us. Buck beckoned to one of the staff members to clear his dishes away, and that seemed to be the signal that the event was over.
Buck approached me, while the others all scattered, running back to their respective worlds. “I’d like to talk to you about this guardianship issue,” he said in his gruff way. That would probably annoy most of my family members, but I actually appreciated his direct, no nonsense approach.
“That’s fine,” I said. I got up and followed him back to his office, which was like a Texan’s version of JP’s study. It had furniture with a strong western influence, along with a few stuffed cow heads on the walls. Presumably the ones with horns were bulls.
He shut the door behind us, and then pointed for me to sit on the other side of the desk from him, which was a clear power gesture. I didn’t let that bother me at all, because since I knew what it was, it lost all of its impact. “I plan to file for guardianship of Dally,” he said, tossing that out there as a challenge.
“There are two ways to approach this,” I said to him firmly. While I appreciated his direct manner, I wasn’t any more inclined to put up with shit from this guy than Will or Stef were. “One is that you do that without my approval, and we end up in one hell of a court battle. The other is that we work out a deal to make it happen smoothly.”
He eyed me carefully, and I could read the annoyance in his eyes, irritation at having me all but threaten him in his own study, but that was only his internal reaction, not the reaction he showed me. He knew that he had a pretty strong position in this fight. First of all, Dally’s guardianship would probably be decided by Texas courts, and I was under no illusions that Buck would have considerable influence in that venue. In addition, I wasn’t exactly the model guardian, what with me being a single gay man, and I was sure that would play less well in Texas than in my home state. At the same time, Buzz had asked me to be Dally’s guardian for a reason, and I was willing to bet that Buck didn’t want those reasons to be aired in a guardianship hearing. And despite some contentious moments, we’d all managed to get along relatively well this weekend. There was simply no reason for him to spark a fight with me if he didn’t need to. He must have come to the same conclusions. “What did you have in mind?”
“I’d like to spend some time with Dally,” I said, softening my tone slightly. “That was clearly Buzz’s intent when he nominated me to be Dally’s guardian.”
“So what’s that mean?” he asked, avoiding any admission about what Buzz intended.
“That means I want him to be able to spend his summers with me and my family to the degree that he wants to, and that means he can come out and visit over his Spring Break if he wants, or whenever it works out for him,” I said.
Buck got up and walked over to the window and gazed out at all of his acres as he presumably thought about what I said. I sat there, pretending to be relaxed. He finally turned around and faced me. “I can work with that.”
“Excellent,” I said with a smile. He didn’t smile back at me, which was no great surprise. There was silence until I stood up to end our meeting. “I’ll tell my lawyers that’s what we agreed on.”
“You do that,” he said. I walked out of his office and back to our rooms. I’d been checking on Scott Slater’s status, and he was going to be fine, but I’d need to get out to see him next week. I’d talked to Jake and told him about the care package, but he hadn’t given me any additional information, so I’d need to follow up with him. My mind began to wander even as I walked, thinking about all the things on my agenda.
I was distracted when my phone vibrated. I was inclined to ignore it until I saw that it was Mike, my half brother. “Hello,” I said as I answered it.
“I hope I didn’t catch you at a bad time,” he said.
“Not at all,” I said truthfully. These days, I was so busy there really was no ‘good’ time to catch me.
“I wanted to bring Christopher out to meet you and Will, and I was thinking that maybe we could do that on the weekend of October 11.”
“Hang on,” I said, and pulled out my calendar. “Looks like that will work for me.” I assumed that Will would work it in as well.
“Excellent,” he said. “If it’s not a problem, I’d like to have my other son Colin meet us there as well.”
“That’s not a problem at all,” I said, even though I was wondering why he was doing that. He gave me the explanation I wanted.
“Colin has Columbus Day off, so that gives him an extra day to make the trek out west,” Mike said. “That way I’ll get a chance to see him and find out how things are going at the Academy, and he won’t have to fly all the way out to Hawaii.”
“That sounds great,” I said. “I’m looking forward to meeting both of them.”
“I’ll firm up times when we get closer to those dates,” he said. “I may be travelling to DC next week, and I was planning a brief stop in the Bay Area.”
That could be significant, in that he was coming just to see me, or it could be just a routine matter, since there were still naval bases in the Bay Area that may warrant a visit from him. “If it’s possible, it would be great to meet with you,” I told him. “Just let me know when you’re in town.”
“I will,” he said, and then we ended our call.
August 31, 2003
The Dalby Ranch
Today had been one big emotional drain. The worst part was the memorial for Buzz. There were all kinds of pictures of him, and odes to him, and it made me miss him, and also made me realize how little I really knew about him. If you looked at Dally, it would seem that he took it all pretty well, but I could feel how tortured he was underneath his shell. I felt so bad for him, because I knew exactly how he felt because I’d been there, only in a way, he had it so much worse. In this environment, he really was alone. He’d told me that, to the degree that she could, his Aunt Nola watched out for him, but with the power structure of their family, that wasn’t saying much. When Buck stood up to leave, Dally all but jumped up, just chomping at the bit to escape to his own world. “I’m going upstairs,” he said.
“I’m going to check in with my dad, and then I’ll see you up there,” I told him. He was in such a hurry to bail, he didn’t even respond to me, which was just fine.
I was about to go talk to my father when Buck beat me to him and all but dragged him off. I shrugged, but before I could just head upstairs, Stef stopped me. “I am wondering if you would join me.”
“Sure,” I said automatically. “What do you need?”
“I must have a brief conversation with Nola, and I would like you to be there,” he said. I looked around and noticed that Nola and her family had vanished too. These people had run away from this dinner with indecent speed.
“I can do that,” I said, then smiled as I teased him. “You probably need my help just to find them.”
“They certainly did not linger,” he said wryly. “I am also planning for us to leave early tomorrow. I am hoping that works for you.”
I shrugged. We’d planned to be here until tomorrow night, but I’d had enough of Dalby Ranch. “I can work with that.”
“Thank you,” he said with evident relief, as if I were some drama queen that would throw a tantrum over our departure time. I forced myself not to get annoyed with him.
“Come on,” I said, and ushered him through this massive house they lived in to the wing that was reserved for Nola and her family. I knocked loudly on the outer door, in a way that I was finding was common here. They had a common area, but if everyone was in their rooms, it took a loud knock for them to hear.
Spence answered the door casually, but tensed up when he saw Stef. “I am here to see your mother,” Stef told him.
“Sure,” Spence said, and led us in. They had divided their open space into two rooms. One was for the kids and a glance in there showed Spence’s two younger siblings playing with their PlayStation. The other room was set up for adults, with a monster television and comfortable seating.
Nola saw us and stood up smoothly. “Welcome,” she said pleasantly.
“I hope I am not bothering you, but I had a few things I needed to talk to you about, and as we plan to leave early tomorrow morning, I wanted to accomplish that this evening,” Stef said.
“I’m sorry to see you leave so soon, but I’m more than happy to spend some time with you now,” she said smoothly. “Let’s go out on the patio.” We walked outside, but fortunately it was a little cooler now than it had been this afternoon. It had been over 90 and a bit humid, but now it was probably closer to 85. The three of us sat down around a nice table, and Nola poured us each a glass of lemonade, which seemed to be the drink of choice here.
“Buzz made some provisions in his trust for you,” Stef said.
“Well that was nice of him, but he certainly didn’t have to do that,” she said.
“My understanding, as enhanced by conversations with his attorneys, was that he wanted to give you a degree of independence from your father,” Stef said.
“The dream we all share,” she said, shaking her head sadly.
“He has instructed me to make sure you receive the sum of $100,000 a month,” Stef explained. “You are also to have access to Buzz’s house in Austin.”
“He’s replacing the income Daddy gives me,” Nola said thoughtfully, much to herself. “Did he make the same provisions for Linda?”
“He did not,” Stef said.
“She’s such a suck up to Daddy, she wouldn’t need it,” Nola said with a scowl. “It’s probably obvious to you that she’s his favorite.”
“And her kids too,” I added.
“And her kids,” she agreed. “If I take this money, then it comes from Dally, doesn’t it?”
“In a roundabout way,” Stef agreed, since Dally would be the beneficiary of Buzz’s trust.
“Then I’d like to not take the money now, and if things get rough enough that I have to leave here, I’ll contact you,” she said, shocking the shit out of both Stef and me.
“I will certainly do as you ask,” Stef said.
“Buzz has always watched out for me, so it’s not a surprise that he did that, but I try not to take advantage of his generosity,” she said.
“I think that is a noble attitude,” Stef said. We made some small talk, then left. I walked Stef back to the annex so he didn’t get lost.
“Pretty impressive that she did that,” I said.
“I am rarely surprised these days, but that did indeed shock me a bit,” he agreed. “I will still segregate the money for her. Even if she does not need it now, she may need it in the future.”
“I’ll bet there’s plenty left for Dally anyway,” I said with a grin.
“That would be a good bet,” Stef agreed. I left him at his room and hurried back to my room. I stripped off my suit and replaced it with some shorts and a T-shirt, then went over to see Dally. I knocked, and when I didn’t get a response, I opened the door slowly and peeked in.
He was lying on his bed, face down, wearing only briefs. Parts of his suit, like his pants, shirt, and tie, were spread out around the room where he’d probably thrown them when he took them off. I went up and sat next to him, then rubbed his back gently. That seemed to provoke sobs from him, but I’d been where he’d been, and I knew that didn’t mean he didn’t want me here. I rubbed his back for the longest time while he cried, even as I shed some more tears too, for both Buzz and his tortured son.
He finally rolled over, wiping his eyes on the pillow as he did, and I got my first look at his shirtless body. He didn’t have much hair on his legs or his torso, so other than for two small patches under his arms, the man-baby persona continued with his body. His stomach wasn’t as obvious when he was lying down, and neither were his man boobs, but he did have relatively large nipples. None of those things was particularly attractive, but somehow when they were combined into one person, they were. Or maybe it was just the person he was that was attractive.
Our eyes met and he reached up and grabbed me, pulling me into a desperate hug, one we held for quite a while. I focused on consoling him, and not on how good it felt to be in his arms. It was tough, though, with his soft skin, and his soft body, that seemed to envelop me in a way that reminded me of Robbie. “Sorry,” he mumbled, as he finally broke our embrace.
“It’s OK,” I said. “I get it.” He nodded. “Besides, it was kind of hot,” I added, winking at him.
“Right,” he said dubiously. “If I was Preston, you might think it was hot.”
We’d talked about all kinds of things, but we’d never talked about me being gay, and we’d never talked about his sexuality. I didn’t know if he had a girlfriend, a boyfriend, or if he’d ever had any intimate contact at all. It had been pretty clear to me that he and Spence walked in Preston’s shadow, but until now, I didn’t realize how much that had impacted his self-esteem. “No, I think it’s hot because it’s you,” I said.
“Yeah?” he asked, in a slightly flirtatious way.
“Yeah,” I said. Then our eyes locked, and as if they were some gravitational force, they pulled us together. Slowly I moved my face closer to his, closing my eyes as I did, until I felt our lips meet, gently at first, then more urgently. I’d visualized him as a pretty virginal neophyte, but he kissed like a fucking pro. Just as I was about to let my hormones take control and move my hand down to his cock, there was a loud knock on the door to his suite.
“Fuck,” he said, exasperated. I sighed, and then smiled as I looked down at his tenting underwear. From what was poking out, it looked like this boy was well-endowed. He put his hands down to cover his crotch in a modest gesture, which made me laugh.
“I’ll answer the door while you put some clothes on,” I said. I stood up and had to adjust my own erection, then walked out to see who was cock-blocking me. I was surprised to find my father there.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” he said nervously, as if realizing he’d interrupted something.
“It’s no big deal,” I said, and led him into the main area. “Dally is changing clothes. He’ll be out in a minute.”
“Good, since he’s the one I came up to talk to,” Dad said, making it seem as if he wouldn’t waste his effort just to talk to me.
It didn’t take long for Dally to appear, looking just a little disheveled as he pulled his shirt into shape. “Hi,” he said nervously.
“I’m sorry to bother you, but I worked out a deal with your grandfather, and I wanted to tell you about it,” Dad said.
“Oh?” Dally asked, sounding both curious and annoyed.
“I think it was pretty much what you asked me for,” Dad said, which was a slick way of making Dally feel like he wasn’t just a pawn in this. “You get to spend your summers or breaks with us if you want.”
“In California?” he asked, wide-eyed.
“We go other places too,” I said playfully, getting an eye-roll from him in return.
“Wherever we are,” Dad confirmed. “Basically if you have an extended weekend or anything longer than that, and you want to come visit, you should let me know.”
“Wow,” Dally said, pretty shell-shocked by that. “Thank you so much.”
“I think it’s what your father would have wanted,” Dad said, making us all a little sad. “And now that I’ve met you, I’m looking forward to having you around.”
“That’s awesome!” I said, with real enthusiasm.
“I understand that dinner tonight is casual, and optional,” Dad said, his way of telling us we didn’t have to be there. “I’ll see you in the morning. We leave at 7:00.”
“Shit,” I grumbled. I walked him to the door and shut it behind him, hoping to continue my make out session with Dally, but he was putting on his shoes when I got back to his room.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said. I blinked for a second, and then got my act together. It wasn’t a requirement that we fuck around, but I did feel like I’d been led on just a bit.
“Sounds good,” I said. “Give me a second to grab my shit.” I went into my room and snagged my wallet and my phone. I looked at it like I always did, and got sad when there was no call from Zach. I hadn’t talked to him since before I’d flown out here. I’d called him last night and left a pleasant message, but that’s it. Maybe it was my unsatisfied hormones, but whatever it was, suddenly I missed him in the worst way. I went into the bathroom and rinsed off my face, telling myself that I was doing it to keep my acne under control and not to hide the tears that would be there otherwise. I swallowed hard and walked out to find Dally waiting for me.
We went out the back way, the same way we’d gone when he’d first met me, got into his truck, and got out of there before anyone could stop us, not that they would. “I’ll show you my favorite spot on the ranch.”
“Cool,” I said, and kicked back for the ride.
He had figured out that I wasn’t a country music fan, so the radio was on a rock station that played mostly top 40, but also some alternative stuff. I was doing pretty well after my Zach attack until “I Miss You” from Aaliyah came on the radio. “I love this song, even though it’s sad,” Dally said, turning it up.
“Me too,” I said, ignoring the significance it had for me. It was really creepy the way Aaliyah had died in 2001, not long before the 9-11 disaster, yet they’d released these songs just recently. It was like she was speaking to us from the grave, but it was worse than that for me. There were two songs that were all about Zach and me, and this was one of them. With this song, it was like she was talking directly to me, or more to the point, it was like she was me talking to Zach.
"Miss You" by Aaliyah
[Chorus] It's been too long and I'm lost without you What am I gonna do? Said I been needin' you, wantin' you (Said I need you) Wonderin' if you're the same and who's been with you Is your heart still mine? I wanna cry sometimes I miss you
[Verse 1] Off to college Yes, you went away Straight from high school You up and left me We were close friends Also lovers Did everything For one another Now you're gone and I'm lost without you here now But I know I gotta live and make it somehow Come back...to me Can you...feel me (Callin') Hear me...callin' (For you) For you...'Cause it's
[Chorus] It's been too long and I'm lost without you What am I gonna do? Said I been needin' you, wantin' you Wonderin' if you're the same and who's been with you Is your heart still mine? I wanna cry sometimes I miss you
[Verse 2] Now I'm sittin' here Thinkin' 'bout you And the days we used to share It's drivin' me crazy I don't know what to do I'm just wonderin' if you still care I don't wanna let you know That it's killin' me I know you got another life you gotta concentrate baby Come back...to me Can you...feel me (Callin') Hear me...callin' (For you) For you...'Cause it's
[Chorus 2x] It's been too long and I'm lost without you What am I gonna do? Said I been needin' you, wantin' you Wonderin' if you're the same and who's been with you Is your heart still mine? I wanna cry sometimes I miss you
[Bridge] I...can't...be...no...more Since you went away I Don't really feel like talkin' No one here to love me Baby do you understand me I can't do or be without you
[Chorus 3x] It's been too long and I'm lost without you (Tell me what I'm gonna do) What am I gonna do? Said I been needin' you, wantin' you Wonderin' if you're the same and who's been with you Is your heart still mine? I wanna cry sometimes I miss you
Dally drove on, enjoying the song, while I tried to fight the tears. It was a losing battle. He seemed oblivious to me so I didn’t want to wipe my eyes and draw attention to myself. Instead, I just looked away from him, out the window. The truck stopped when the song was almost over. After Aaliyah crooned her final ‘I miss you’, I wiped my eyes off and looked back at him, only to find him staring at me nervously. “I’m sorry if that upset you.”
I shrugged. “It reminded me of someone, but it’s OK now.”
“Come on,” he said, and got out of the truck. He led me down a little path to a really pretty scene. There was a small lake that had formed in a creek, at the top of a ravine. The water from the lake poured over a rocky edge into another lake below it. The whole thing was surrounded by greenery that had no significance to me other than its color, and the privacy it provided.
“This place is amazing!” I said, admiring its beauty.
“I thought you’d like it,” he said smugly. “Let’s go swimming.”
“Now?” I asked, like an idiot, even as he started pulling his shirt off.
“No, tomorrow,” he said, being a smartass.
“I think you just planned this to get me to take me clothes off,” I teased.
“I probably could have done that back at the house just as easily,” he said, in a cocky way that was pretty cute.
“Probably,” I agreed.
He swallowed nervously. “I just don’t move that fast.”
“Dude, I’m not asking you to move anywhere, or at any speed,” I said, probably a little too abruptly. Those words, or my tone, had totally killed the buzz we’d built up. I felt my one-hitter in my pocket and smiled. “You smoke?”
“Some of my friends smoke, but I don’t,” he said with disdain. “You can go ahead if you want though.”
I chuckled, because it was pretty obvious he thought I was talking about tobacco. I pulled out my one-hitter. “I meant weed.”
He smiled. “Fuck yeah. Not much else to do out here.”